By Mufu Luvai
In February every year, thousands of music lovers from all over the world beat their path to Stone Town, Zanzibar to experience Sauti za Busara, East Africa’s biggest musical extravaganza. Since its inception in 2004, when the festival exclusively featured Tanzanian artists, over 400 musicians have graced the stage today, both the established and the little known. What started off as a spin off from the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF), SzB has become a force of music expression, where the spirit of East Africa can be felt across the globe. Uplifting and changing the lives of local Tanzanians, Sauti za Busara is only accidentally a tourist attraction. Mufu Luvai of Crave [music] caught up with its founder, Yusuf Mahmoud (DJ Yusuf) in Johannesburg, South Africa and was transported to the heart of this magnificent mission.
Mufu: How did you end up in Zanzibar and how did the idea of Sauti za Busara come up?
Yusuf: Well I came from the UK where I was working in promoting what they call World Music since the mid-eighties until 1998. I heard there was a job in Zanzibar, setting up a film festival called ZIFF, Zanzibar International Film Festival. They were looking for someone with experience in organizing festivals to come and help coordinate the first edition. In January 1998 I moved to Zanzibar from the UK, with a plan to be there for around 6 months to help the first edition come into play. One of the board members of ZIFF asked me if I could plan a programme for music and performing arts. So the music programme with ZIFF became very successful, brought in a lot of audiences. That was 1998. The ZIFF committee asked if I could extend my contract for another year and another and another…so I stayed with ZIFF for five years as a music director. I enjoyed working in Zanzibar, because of the people, the climate, the way of life. In those days it was a big international event, attracting a lot of people. After 5 years, I decided to leave. I felt during that time that I had learnt a lot about the diversity of the wonderful music that exists in East Africa that is not necessarily played on the radio, but is performed in other kinds of events - weddings and other ceremonies. I felt that there was a need to have a spotlight shining on East African music. So in 2003, I set up an NGO called Busara Promotions, got a constitution and a board of directors. Our main event each year - not the only one – is Sauti za Busara music festival, which is in Zanzibar every year in February. I could say the festival evolved. The first year was primarily Tanzanian music with primarily a Tanzanian audience and then within a few years it became a more East African thing, in terms of what was on stage and the audience. And now I think the reputation is more of an African music festival which prioritizes and highlights East Africa.
Mufu: Since 2004 to date, what local impact do you see on the Tanzanian or East African community; how have they benefited directly from Sauti za Busara?
Yusuf: I think when it comes to arts, culture and music festivals, it’s not easy to quantify the benefits because they are very subtle, gradual, not always immediately visible. One thing I can say is visible is the economic impact of the festival. When we started Sauti za Busara in 2004, first edition, we deliberately chose to do it in February because it was low season in terms of tourism. So over the years the number of visitors to Zanzibar in February has increased by more than 500%. And you can see that very clearly because all the hotels are full, the flights, the ferries from Dar, the taxis drivers, the people selling crafts and so on. Everyone is smiling coz money is really circulating. So that’s one obvious impact. But that’s not why we ever did the festival, to promote tourism really. Our aim was to showcase the diversity of wonderful music that exists. We’re talking about the emerging upcoming groups as well as established groups, traditional and acoustic as well as electric and urban styles. In terms of the impact of our festival, one of the things I’m most proud about is the way it’s opened up local audiences and artists’ respect and appreciation for the cultural diversity that exists on the African continent. Not many of them were familiar with mbalax or koras from West Africa or other kinds of music styles, except for European or American RnB and hip hop. And that’s helped to change their music as well to become, I think, still modern and fresh, using guitars and keyboards and so on. Still, what we’re trying to encourage in our festival is to create music that has identity. So that’s one impact. Of course, another impact would be during the festival we have 160 crew members who are employed and being paid and learning a lot of skills and they’re mostly Tanzanians. During the first couple of years there weren’t many people with experience in big events, so they would be like the guys amping the speakers. They are now doing things like stage management, coz they’ve learnt along the way.
Mufu: What criteria do you use to select these musicians to come to perform?
Yusuf: I used to make the decisions in the early years, but now we have a team of people that form the festival selection committee. The last couple of years we’ve received more than 560 applications from groups from all over the continent and beyond. So how do we trickle it down to 40, 30 groups? It’s not an easy job. They have to listen to all the CDs or check the videos for all the groups. We have a quota for the number of groups from Zanzibar, Tanzania and East Africa, which is more like 60% East African. We would have quota in terms of, not just geographic balance but balance in terms of music styles; so we wouldn’t want all hip hop or all taarab for example, we very much look for diversity. We strive always towards gender balance, although the number of women musicians as you know in East Africa is less still. We concentrate more on upcoming rather than established groups. We prefer music that has cultural identity - that is what you’d say African music rather than American photocopies. So these are some of the criteria we use.
Mufu: European festivals feature a lot of West African musicians and I think they could get a sniff of East African musicians through events like Sauti za Busara.
Yusuf: Very much so, maybe if I could bring an example. I had the privilege some years back to be on the jury for Womex. I was campaigning for an East African group to go next to showcase, and my proposal was accepted to take a group called Jagwa Music. Here’s a group that never gets played on the radio. They’re from ghetto suburbs of Dar es Salaam. They’ve never performed on big stages. They came to Sauti za Busara. We’ve now had them three or four times. And each time they perform at the festival, you can see the audience just goes crazy coz it’s just so unique, so different, so full of energy. Some people call it Afro punk coz it’s got that kind of energy and attitude or lack of attitude. So, slowly we’ve helped to promote them and now they’ve done a tour of Europe which had 40 shows over a couple of months. It’s an example of what can happen if we give groups like this the space they deserve to showcase what they do.
Mufu: What legacy would you like see for Sauti za Busara in the next 5 or 10 years?
Yusuf: I would like to see the mass media take more interest in promoting music which is not necessarily per se commercial, because it can never be commercial if it doesn’t get the airplay that it deserves. I’m saying great music could be popular if people knew that it existed. What we find all the time with artists performing in Sauti za Busara, some would bring 20 CDs, some would bring 50 CDs with them, but they all sell out because people are hungry to buy recordings of this kind of music. So I’d like to see it supported more in the media. One thing I am pleased to see already happening is smaller Sauti za Busaras popping up around the region and there’s really interesting cultural events happening now, certainly in Tanzania and Kenya for example. I’d like to see more movement in terms of more East African artist going to perform in other, particularly African or Indian Ocean countries, and exchanges between the artists and the people involved in the infrastructure that’s necessary for artists to move forward. For example music managers, events managers, sound engineers, stage managers. So we’re now starting to develop exchanges between festival crew, for example some of our crew came to Sawa Sawa festival and learnt some new skills and vice versa. I think change is happening and is moving forward. And I think the best change happens slowly but surely.